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Kim Tomsic

Sunday, December 17, 2023

3 Steps to Demystify How to Write a Query Letter and Attract a Literary Agent


Congratulations! You've finished writing your manuscript. Now, you're ready to query an agent or editor.

Let's go! 

There are three parts of a query letter: 

the hook, 

the book, 

and the cook. 

All parts should fit on one page.

Paragraph One (the hook):

Include the following in  “The Hook” paragraph:

  • WHY - Why you chose the agent (e.g., I enjoyed your presentation at the 12x12 webinar)
  • HOOK - Include a sentence with the logline/hook: a “hook” is a single sentence that fast-forwards a readers' understanding of your story, and it can include comp titles (e.g., SEE SHELL is a friendship and perspective story that's like Carson Ellis's DU IZ TAK meets Brenden Wetzel's THEY ALL SAW A CAT but set at the bottom of the sea). 
  • Title (in all caps, e.g., SEE SHELL)
  • Genre
  • Word count
Links to an external site. title, genre and the word count of your book. Julie Fogliano had a sale post this week in Publishers Marketplace, so I’ll use the posted logline as an example (want to see more examples, subscribe to Publishers Lunch). If Julie had been querying this story, her hook++ lines might sound like this: 

FIRST LINE of the paragraph: Your first line should tell the agent why you carefully considered and queried them: Thank you for speaking at SCBWI New York or I enjoyed your webinar at blah blah blah or I enjoyed your interview on such-and-such blog and …your #MSWL…

SECOND and THIRD and FORTH LINE  (or so) for this paragraph: Your hook, TITLE, and word count. Agents might have a particular order in which they’d like to see your first paragraph. I've made this executive choice on the order for the sake of this example. I'll also refer to Julie Fogliano's sale that was announced this month in Publishers Marketplace.  If Julie had been querying this story, her hook++ lines might've sounded like this: 

EXAMPLE: Please consider my 464-word picture book manuscript, BECAUSE OF A SHOE, the story of a tantrum, and how even in the middle of NOT putting on a shoe, parent and child are still their unconditionally loveable selves.

EXAMPLE - a novelist might write: Please consider my 70,000-word YA sci-fi manuscript, THE UNACCOUNTED. It's teenage Jason Bourne meets The Prisoner of Zenda.

PRO TIP: want to see more examples of loglines, subscribe to Publishers Lunch). 

Paragraph Two (the book):

Write a paragraph about your manuscript that reads like jacket flap copy. Present an exciting glimpse of the story, and make us care without giving up the ending.

If you wrote a hero's journey story (rather than a concept book or something else) consider showcasing:

  • The protagonist
  • The inciting incident
  • The stakes (why we care)

Look through your favorite books that fall in the same genre as your manuscript to understand the cadence for how a jacket flap sounds (you'll leave off the “about the creative team” portion). Imagine that you only have mere seconds to capture the reader's attention. A good jacket flap describes the story in such a gripping way that bookstore browsers are ready to slap down their hard-earned cash to buy the book. Agents may use this copy to help present your manuscript to a publishing house, so create a compelling and tight paragraph. Make it easy for the acquisition team to say yes! 

PRO TIP: Once you’ve created your tight paragraph, notice if your copy sounds like a bunch of stuff happening to the protagonist (uh-oh, that won’t be good), or if your protagonist sounds like a character in action (huzzah!).

Paragraph Three (the cook):

Links to an external site.

This is your biography. Make sure you include only relevant information—memberships (e.g., SCBWI), high-caliber writing courses, your MFA, publications, publishing awards, work as a librarian or work in schools. If you've written a STEM book about a scientist and you are a scientist, include that information - that would be an example of relevant information. Nobody explains the “how’s” of writing a biography better than Chuck Sambuchino in Writers Unboxed , so please visit the blog post. He includes an important list of dos and don’ts (e.g., don't say it is copyrighted, don't say how many drafts you went through, don't say your neighbor's children loved it, etc.).

You've got this! Congratulations on arriving at this step. Query letters take a lot of time and research. It's worth the effort!

Good luck!

P.S. SUBJECT LINE: A subject line will typically include the TITLE + GENRE. However, it might also include the word "Query". Please carefully read submission guidelines/instructions for each agent or editor you query. They will have these guidelines listed on their website. Don't assume any two will be alike.

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